City of dreams
Photos in this article are provided by the excellent Cabras Feliz (because I was too tense and forgot to take any) – be sure to check out their website
I’m pretty superstitious when it comes to football. At Andorra away I accidentally stole the hotel keycard, and because Wales won I kept it with me for the rest of the campaign, all the way to qualification. Now our success probably has more to do with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey than my accidental thievery, but who knows. I certainly still blame myself for Austria Salzburg losing the playoff final 5 – 2 a couple of years ago after forgetting to pack my lucky pants.
So with this belief in meaningless symbolism, I was pretty pleased when I checked the time after arriving at Rotterdam Centraal to see it was 19:08. As any ‘echte Rotterdammer’ will be able to tell you, Feyenoord were founded in 1908, and the year features on much of the most popular merchandise sold both officially and unofficially.
To be honest, we needed all the luck we could get. After a superb start to the season which saw local hero Dirk Kuyt return, arch rivals Ajax defeated for the first time in years and the prospect of finally mounting a real title challenge, it all went spectacularly wrong. Feyenoord lost 3 – 1 to NEC, a disastrous result. Then they lost to PSV. Then they lost again. And again, and again…a total of seven times consecutively in the league, utterly destroying the challenge for the title. Indeed, there was a danger of Feyenoord dropping out of the top half of the table, an unthinkable outcome for a season which promised so much.
Understandably, furious supporters turned on the board and recent matches have seen a number of justified protests against Eric Gudde and co. Several hundred supporters were arrested at a game a couple of weeks ago during a non-violent march, which the police were quite clearly tipped off about by the board themselves. Fines of just over €200 were given out, a noticeable sum for anyone, but especially when you consider that many of the protestors were of student age. If I had been asked for €200 as a student, after emptying my bank account I would have asked the police were they expected me to get the remaining €196 from.
Despite the troubled times, the stadium was, like always, completely sold out. Feyenoord could play a friendly match at 8am on a Tuesday against a team of 11 traffic cones and it would still be sold out. Also the way things are going, if it was a league game we’d lose 0 – 2.
Still, there has been one bright spot for Feyenoord this season in the KNVB Beker, the top knockout competition in the Netherlands. After an easy 3 – 0 victory over PEC Zwolle in the opening round, it’s been drama all the way. First there was the 94th minute winner over Ajax, then goals in the 88th and 119th minute to beat Willem II, followed up by another extra time win away at Roda JC. That series of wins set up the home semi-final against AZ. With PSV and Ajax both already eliminated, there was a real chance to end the eight year wait for a trophy.
There is really something special about a night game at De Kuip, something which has been sorely missing this season due to the failure to qualify for the Europa League. There was a buzz in the air around the stadium that you only get with knockout football, and the atmosphere had already kicked off long before the game did. There was also a nice tifo, not quite on the spectacular level of Sevilla last season or Ajax earlier in this one, but a two card display first of all turned the stadium green and white (the colours of Rotterdam) and then switched to the red and white colours of the home shirt.
With one of the best atmospheres of the season, Feyenoord made a fast start – almost finding the net within a couple of minutes. The AZ fans were also contributing, using some pyro in the away end and making a display of their own with red and white scarves. There were some nice chances to open the scoring in the opening ten minutes, with Feyenoord coming the closest to making it 1 – 0, but unable to get the shot on target from a promising position.
Despite the frantic early pace, it would be the 12th minute where the game really game to life. It is traditional for atmosphere actions to take place during this minute of big games (and quite a few small games also), and the stand behind the goal Feyenoord were attacking did not disappoint, putting on a huge pyro show. Sparklers, flares, bangers and smokebombs lit up the night, it was the kind of display that is only fitting of such a beautiful stadium. Smoke drifted across the pitch in the aftermath, a reminder to the players of how much it meant to the supporters.
With the supporters having just set the stadium alight, it would soon be the turn of the players. Just moments after the last flare had spluttered out, the ball is crossed across the face of the goal, reaching Kramer who steered the ball into the net with the help of a touch from an AZ defender. It had been quite a while since De Kuip had seen such a mad celebration, with the now familiar surge towards the front of the stand and bodies tumbling to the ground. The way to judge how important the goal that Feyenoord just scored is by how many people are suddenly lying on the floor, and how many minutes it takes to get back to the people you were standing with before it went in.
There was a new flag I hadn’t seen before on show which read (in English) ‘Many years of hurt never stopped us dreaming’ with a picture of the Beker and league trophies next to it. Well, De Kuip was certainly dreaming now, and while there wasn’t any emotional hurt at this time, there were plenty of shins that were certainly feeling the aftermath of the goal – it’s just not a Thursday night at Feyenoord without a couple of new bruises to add to the collection.
AZ threatened to be blown away following this goal, with the atmosphere in full battle mode and the players playing with the kind of relaxed freedom that had been sorely missing as long ago as November. It was very nearly 2 – 0 just a few minutes later, and a string of four corners in a row wasn’t quite able to find a way past the sturdy Alkmaar defence. It could easily have been 3 – 0 at half time, but it remained just a single goal lead. It was a very pleasing performance in the first 45 minutes, but with this team you always feel as though one goal is not going to be enough to win a game, and I was sure we would come to regret the missed chances later on.
Guess which of these banners I liked best?
As the second half kicked off I thought “Right, just keep a clean sheet for 45 minutes and we’re in the cup final, I’m sure we can do…” and it was 1 – 1. Needing to hang on for 45 minutes without conceding, absolutely senseless defending meant that the home side didn’t even make it 45 seconds. Goalkeeper Vermeer hasn’t been a popular figure (no surprise, considering he was signed from Ajax), but he wasn’t really to blame here, his defence leaving him with no real chance of keeping the ball out of the net. He kept out the initial shot, but was left helpless as the follow-up was smashed in to equalise from less than a yard out.
After so much good work in the first half, it was all undone instantly in the second. The away end had a mad moment of their own, one AZ supporter actually climbed up the fence at the front and stood on it to celebrate. Not that impressive, unless you know that the away end at De Kuip is in the top-tier and he was probably a good 30 – 40 feet in the air.
The confidence crumbled out of Feyenoord in the way you would expect from a team that had won one league game since mid-December. AZ were now well on top, and really should have taken the lead. This lead to a number of chants being directed at the board “Gudde rot op, Gudde rot op, Gudde Gudde, Gudde rot op!” being the most popular. If you don’t understand Dutch, let’s just say that we wanted him to please go away. A defeat here and the season would realistically be over on the 3rd of March. AZ hit the post when it seemed easier to score, and an attacker went around Vermeer but didn’t have the right angle to get the ball into the net.
De Kuip had the sense of impending doom, much in the same way it did after Zorya Luhansk made it 3 – 2 in the now famous Europa League playoff. You just knew they would score again to make it 3 – 3, and indeed they had done so. Of course that night had had the happiest of endings in the 94th minute, but it didn’t look very likely that this vital game would finish in a way to leave a smile on the faces of the Rotterdam public. I felt certain that AZ would score, and even if they didn’t, the prospect of extra time meant I would have missed my last direct train home, meaning I wouldn’t get home until 3am. Annoying when you’ve won, enough to make you take up following netball instead if you’ve lost.
With just over ten minutes to go, Feyenoord make a rare break forward. Kramer has the ball in the box, but his strike at goal isn’t clean. The goalkeeper is able to touch it into the air, but only causing it to loop into the air and into the back of the net. Carnage in De Kuip. I don’t quite beat my personal record of falling down 15 rows after the second goal against Sevilla last season, but it’s close enough. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, at least 20 people needing to be picked up in the aftermath, both the noise and the amount of people tumbling to the ground resembling an earthquake.
Like the banner said, the Feyenoord dream is one which never died and while this is not the league title which is so badly craved – it is still a very significant trophy and the stadium was in full party mode. “Komen wij uit Rotterdam?” “Ken je dat niet horen dan?!” was sung back and forth between huge sections of the stadium. “Feyenoord til I die…” was the next song to be bellowed out by the entire stadium, and this would prove to be a fitting choice. Ron Vlaar, now of AZ, spent six years with Feyenoord in the early days of his career, captaining the club for a few of these years. He was a very popular player during this time, in particular for the time he grabbed a microphone after a victory against Ajax and started the chants from the field.
Clearly ‘Feyenord til I die’ had not been forgotten by Vlaar, and his foul on Elia gave away a penalty with four minutes to go. Local hero Dirk Kuyt stepped up, and there was never any doubt where the ball was going. He blasted it into the net, and now the party could well and truly get started safely. “Finale, ohooo, finale, ohooo!” and a chant directed at the major of Rotterdam joined the song rotation now, Aboutaleb is not a popular figure with Feyenoord supporters due to his excessive policing of matches, and “Hey Aboutaleb, Feyenoord is coming for you!” was chanted (as a joke rather than a threat, I should add) and the stadium was alive and jumping once more. After the months of hardship which had been endured, the frustrations and emotions all came tumbling out at once.
The final whistle went, and a swirling Kuip saluted the players who had taken them back to the cup final, the first since 2010. The years of hurt can’t truly be said to be over until Feyenoord wins their first league title of the millennium, but Dirk Kuyt lifting a trophy at home next month would certainly be a better painkiller than a couple of Paracetamol. Football might not be coming home, but the cup final is…